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Phantom Thread: A Visual Exploration of Fifties Couture

Earning countless nominations for everything from Best Picture to Best Original Score, Paul Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017) is, objectively, a cinematic success.

One defining characteristic that makes it so, is the array of beautiful costumes courtesy of costume designer, Mark Bridges (Silver Linings Playbook, Joker, Marriage Story), who won six costume awards for Phantom Thread, most notably the 91st Academy Award for Best Costume Design.

The film, set in 1950’s post-war London, follows couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), whose House of Woodcock dresses the most glamourous women of the decade. His fastidious design process is interrupted by his relationship with, Alma (Vicky Krieps), which develops into a strange sadomasochistic dynamic between himself and his stubborn muse, and is punctuated by beautiful fabrics, finishes and fittings.

Phantom Thread is an exciting film for costume design as it not only requires the dressing of characters, but it centres around the workings and fashions of a 1950s couture atelier. Bridges succeeds at this task masterfully, designing and defining the entire look of The House of Woodcock, including a complete couture line, which is presented in the film in a stylish fifties fashion show.

Bridges captures the re-emerging opulence of the post-war era, and his designs inform the audience on the status and prestige of Woodcock’s fashion house, as well as the values of this character. His designs are not outrageous or theatrical, but poised and elegant.

Woodcock is not meant to be a sartorial pioneer of new fashions and trends, in fact his designs often feature historical recollections such as Renaissance slashing. Woodcock is not meant to be symbolic of modern style movements, but a man whose work is a product of his time, and may be expected to fade into the background as new, emerging fashion houses take precedence. This idea permeates the film with an inescapable feeling of nostalgia, and gentle reminiscences of a time past.

Knowing that Woodcock’s designs are based firmly in – and no further than – his current time in the 1950s, the audience is able to recognise these fashions, which are not boundary pushing, but are intended to feed into the overarching sense of nostalgia present in the film. Popular cuts, accents and details, the affinity for lace, the lingering hips of the 1940s ‘New Look’ are all working towards this end, and it is oddly comforting to be able to draw similarities between the costumes in Phantom Thread and original designs of the decade in which it is set. It lends a sense of trust, reliability and authenticity to a film whose characters are so deeply rooted in the post-war era of the 1950s.

left: Alma, Phantom Thread (2017) middle: Sophie Malgat in Dior, 1953 right: Chanel gown, 1954

left: Alma, Phantom Thread (2017), middle: Brigitte Bardot, 1952 right: Simplicity pattern, 1947

left: costume from Phantom Thread (2017), middle: Dior’s ‘New Look’ silhouette, 1947 right: Fred Greenberg advertisement c. 1950s

left: costume from Phantom Thread (2017), middle left: Dovima, 1953 middle right: Guy Laroche suit, 1959 right: fashion photo by Frances McLaughlin-Gill, 1953

left: costume from Phantom Thread (2017), middle: Givency ‘Lilies of the Valley’ gown, 1955 right: Grace Kelly in her wedding dress, 1956

left: costume from Phantom Thread (2017)middle: Dorian Leigh in Dior, Harper’s Bazaar, 1951 right: Ebony Magazine, 1960


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